With no established stars of the National Hunt game running this past week, the spotlight was given to the potential stars of the future. This time of year in jumps racing is wonderfully exciting, with last season’s bumper performers going novice hurdling and novice chasers honing their skills for the first time over larger obstacles.
From this point of view, there was plenty to digest, and below, I cover the horses which most stood out for me.
KEEP ON RIGHT SIDE OF CHAMP AND TANK, BUT GOING LEFT?
The Nicky Henderson-trained Champ and the Colin Tizzard inmate Reserve Tank both ran over fences this week; the former making his debut over the larger obstacles at Newbury on Thursday with the latter having his second go over fences at Wincanton in the Grade 2 John Romans Park Homes "Rising Stars" Novices' Chase on Saturday.
Both were two-time Grade 1-winning novice hurdlers last season so expectations coming into this campaign were likely to be high, this especially the case of Champ, a horse named after National Hunt’s greatest ever jockey, AP McCoy. We’ll begin with JP McManus’s horse and his success at Newbury.
The son of King's Theatre simply got his chase career off to a fantastic start. There were many positives to take from the performance, notably his jumping, a department the seven-year-old showed a good aptitude in. For a big horse, he could be athletic and nimble when needed, but when Barry Geraghty saw a stride, Champ also had the ability to go long and be bold. On this evidence, chasing holds no fears.
Further positives can be taken from the level of performance. I have Champ running to 144+, a very good level on chasing debut. For context, I had last season’s RSA winner Topofthegame running to 160. Champ will obviously need to improve to reach those heights, but we are only in November; he has plenty of time.
The fact Champ looks a more settled horse on last week’s evidence is a variable that will surely aid his chance in getting better. Although older than most of the horses he competed against in 2018/19, mentally, he remained immature; consistently racing with the ignorant exuberance of youth, a trait that I always felt hindered his true quality.
As his pedigree suggests, with Champ’s dam being a half-sister to three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate, and being by stamina influence King's Theatre, Champ, for me, will likely prove better over staying trips. With him now (hopefully) looking to race more professionally, the raw ability that has always looked within, may be shown to the world this season.
Whether that will be seen on right-handed tracks is another thing, with the seven-year-old adjusting and jumping to his left at stages at Newbury. You can’t be too critical given it was the novice’s first start over fences but it’s just something to bear in mind, especially if connections go down the Kauto Star Novices' Chase route at Kempton over Christmas.
The case for Reserve Tank being a happier horse going left-handed is a little clearer after two runs over fences. On seasonal debut at Chepstow, and again last weekend at Wincanton, Colin Tizzard’s inmate showed an apparent liking for adjusting and jumping left.
At Chepstow where he was second behind Jarvey’s Plate when looking in need of the run, despite running at a left-handed track, the son of Jeremy still jumped slightly to his left. On the right-handed track of Wincanton in Saturday’s Grade 2 this could be seen again.
Here, as his odds of 4/5 suggest he was entitled to win, but this characteristic will prove tougher to overcome up in grade, if running right-handed again.
In Champ and Reserve Tank we are still dealing with young, inexperienced horses where fences are concerned, but it’s hard to argue that both haven’t adjusted, shifted and jumped left in parts.
With regards Champ and his current price of 5/1 for the RSA in March. At this moment in time, that looks pretty skinny. Yes, he has shown a good aptitude for jumping but he is yet to prove he is as far clear as the market suggests on ability. It’s a price based on potential, which he has plenty of, but proven form should always trump it.
NEWBURY NOVICE DUO TWO LIKABLE MARES
On the same Newbury card that Champ won on midweek, two lovely novice hurdling mares took each other on in the CSP Mares' Novices' Hurdle. The Paul Nicholls-trained Silver Forever just held the fast-finishing Floressa, Nicky Henderson’s inmate looking a touch unlucky after an awkward landing at the last probably cost her victory.
Up to that last hurdle, both mares put on an exhibition of galloping and jumping, Harry Cobden electing to make it a proper test over the two-mile distance on the grey winner, a gallop that really separated the wheat from the chaff.
In the end, the two classy-looking mares pulled 13 lengths clear of recent Cheltenham winner Heaven Help Us, putting down solid early markers in a division that is now catered for at the Cheltenham Festival with the Dawn Run Novices' Hurdle.
Going forward, Silver Forever (133+) will likely prove just as good on slower ground and even up in trip slightly, but Floressa (133+) looks a happy horse over the minimum distance, especially with her strong-travelling abilities, which will be aided by nice ground.
Both are worth keeping onside with the future in mind.
NAAS MAIDEN HURDLE LOOKS SOLID EARLY SEASON NOVICE FORM
The opening maiden hurdle run at Naas last Saturday was farcical to watch. After the first hurdle, 16 lengths separated first to last. After the second hurdle, 18 lengths. After the third, 28. It wasn’t good viewing, but while only a handful of horses ever looked likely to score, the end result suggested it was a smart race.
Joseph O’Brien’s Embittered overhauled 2018 top-class bumper horse and 4/9 favourite Blackbow, with the pair finishing just over a length in front of the Edward O’Grady-trained You Can Call Me Al. This trio all started their campaigns in lovely fashion, coming 17 lengths clear of the fourth, running to marks in the high 130s, a quality level for their first spins over obstacles.
Having missed all of last season Blackbow looked happy to be back, setting out to make-all with Paul Townend stealing a couple of cheap early lengths. Despite this, and also jumping well, he couldn’t repeal the first-time hooded Embittered.
It was a classy return from Joseph O’Brien’s horse, who travelled into the race easily, picking up nicely on ground that was surely too soft and winning a touch readily. He didn’t jump as well as the runner-up but on better ground, you get the feeling he will do everything even easier.
His final time was near identical to the winner of Grade 3 Fishery Lane Hurdle Surin, who was officially rated 131 going into Saturday’s race, but Embittered carried a staggering 16lb more. It was a lovely run to kick off what might be a good season for the five-year-old, especially if getting on some quicker ground.
The son of Fame And Glory has quality Flat blood on his dam’s side and looks a lovely two-mile prospect for Gigginstown House Stud. The Grade 1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse looks to be next.
The third home is another Fame And Glory gelding with quality on the distaff side of his page, and looks an improved performer for trainer Edward O’Grady and owner JP McManus.